Perspectives | Politics

License plates for sovereignty

By - 23.11.2022

Vetëvendosje’s confrontations with the U.S. and EU are nothing new.

The issue of license plates has returned yet again to exemplify the ongoing tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. A recent decision that Prime Minister Albin Kurti has called a “gradual implementation of the policy for illegal license plates” means that since November 1, Kosovar Police have been issuing reprimands to drivers still in possession of Serbian-issued plates for Kosovo cars. Starting April 1, 2023, the cars will be required to have Kosovar-issued plates.

The decision was evidently not to the liking of the U.S. State Department. Days before implementation, U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Jeff Hovenier said that his country’s preference on the matter is to postpone the issue to avoid tensions.

When Kurti went ahead with his plans, the U.S. State Department issued a letter expressing their disappointment and concern that the government of Kosovo was not doing as requested. Their disappointment became clear on November 10, when an official visit to the U.S. by Kosovo’s Justice Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs planned for December was abruptly postponed. 

On November 21, another request from international partners for a one month postponement to parts of the implementation — which called for fines to be issued to drivers with illegal license plates beginning on November 22 and which precipitated mass resignations of Kosovo Serbs from jobs in the Kosovo system in the north of the country — again was not accepted. EU High Representative Joseph Borell had particularly harsh words for Kosovo, saying the government showed a “lack of respect for their international legal obligations.” At the last moment the U.S. intervened and suggested a 48 hour postponement, which Kurti quickly accepted.

Kurti first began addressing the issue of license plates in September 2021. From the beginning it was clear it was about more than just license plates, it was about performing and bolstering Kosovo’s sovereignty in the face of Serbian intransigence. Vetëvendosje has long been focused on giving substance to Kosovo’s empty sovereignty.

Vetëvendosje seeks to reclaim power from Kosovo's international sponsors.

Vetëvendosje, and especially Kurti, are cognizant that Kosovo’s sovereignty is not only hampered by Serbia’s continuous obstruction. As a leftist movement engaged in the decolonial critique of power relations, the party seeks to reclaim power from Kosovo’s international sponsors as well. To this end, Kurti’s recent decision on license plates is about redefining, if not confronting, Kosovo’s peculiar relationship with the U.S. and the Quint countries (France, Germany, Italy, the U.K.). This redefinition, however, is a complicated one. 

Kosovo’s sovereignty, however incomplete at the international level, is largely guaranteed by the U.S. and Western European countries. At the same, it is these countries, with their frequent interference in Kosovo’s day-to-day politics, that are the biggest obstacles to Kosovo’s full sovereignty. Kurti’s confrontation with this paradox is winning domestic support, but is it distracting his government from addressing other pressing issues of dysfunction and disrepair across the country?

From saviors to obstacles

In 1999, together with allied forces, the U.S. initiated the NATO bombing against Serbia to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. In 2008, the U.S. was instrumental in coordinating, planning and choreographing Kosovo’s declaration of independence and in securing international recognition. The gratitude and adoration that most Kosovar Albanians have for the U.S. is evident in the way that U.S. troops were welcomed in 1999, how statues of former President Bill Clinton and the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were erected in Prishtina and how Kosovar Albanians celebrate Bill Clinton’s birthday.

Amid such public sentiment, post-war political elites in Kosovo — largely former guerrilla leaders — established a cozy, co-dependent and subservient relationship with the U.S. Embassy in Prishtina.

Because of Serbia’s obstructionist stance towards Kosovo and the European Union’s lethargic if not oblivious engagement with Kosovo, it seemed that the best bet for the Kosovar elite was to let the internationals — ideally the Americans — handle business. To this end, over two decades, they established a narrative in which being “yes-men” to the U.S. Embassy was presented as synonymous with protecting Kosovo’s interests.

Post-war political elites in Kosovo established a cozy and subservient relationship with the U.S. Embassy in Prishtina.

Unlike its predecessors who acted as obedient and uncritical implementers of the sometimes questionable policies of international administrators, Vetëvendosje has long criticized the paradoxes of international statebuilding in Kosovo, oftentimes exposing the neo-colonial traits of Western liberal interventionism

For example, following the installment of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in the early 2000s, Vetëvendosje was swift to criticize the mission’s status as anti-democratic and unresponsive to Kosovo’s citizens. Vetëvendosje activists frequently clashed with UNMIK police officers and led a campaign to vandalize their cars. 

In 2007, Vetëvendosje organized a country-wide campaign to boycott the UNMIK-organized elections in Kosovo. Arguing that the elections were merely simulations of democracy, Vetëvendosje covered the country with graffiti with the acronym UNMIK but which spelled out in Albanian “Unë Nuk Merrem Me Interesat e Kosovës” (“I do not care about Kosovo’s interests”).

Though the movement was not against an international presence per se, it was against UNMIK’s status, which had become the sovereign power itself. Around the same period, Vetëvendosje activists painted the newly erected walls around the UNMIK building in Prishtina with graffiti reading “UNMIK COLONIALISM,” as a comment on the walled-off and detached international administration. 

Vetëvendosje has long had a relationship with the U.S. Embassy that was neither cozy nor subservient.

In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence with the help of the Western allies. Kosovo’s Constitution, national anthem and national flag were designed following the narrow strictures of what the U.S. Embassy and other Western partners decided were the proper values and aesthetics. At the time, Vetëvendosje considered the declaration of independence an empty one. They ridiculed the flag for not being representative of Kosovo’s people and said, “the current constitution is for Kosovo, but not of Kosovo… Kosovo should have a sovereign, historic, national, civic and democratic constitution. The current one is none of the above.” 

Moreover, Vetëvendosje, then a political movement and not yet a party, had a relationship with the U.S. Embassy that was neither cozy nor subservient. In diplomatic cables from 2007 that were released by Wikileaks, U.S. Ambassador to Prishtina at the time Tina Kaidanow wrote that Kurti’s arrest — following the violent protests of February 10, 2007 when Romanian U.N. police killed two Vetëvendosje protesters — was “good news for Kosovo” and that Kurti posed “a flight risk for prosecutors [and] a danger to public safety.”

In 2011, Vetëvendosje turned into a political party and ran in that year’s elections. The day before the elections, U.S. Ambassador to Prishtina Christopher Dell toured the headquarters of the political parties to wish them all a fair and democratic process. When journalists asked him whether he planned to also visit Vetëvendosje, Dell curtly declared “I have not met them and I will not meet them,” sending a message to Kosovo’s constituents about which political parties had the blessing of the United States, an implicit attempt to influence voters.

Vetëvendosje’s attempts to redefine Kosovo’s relationship to the U.S. has been made challenging by this past relationship and by the U.S.’s long-term unfettered interference in Kosovo’s governance, including selecting a President through a sealed envelope and ousting governments. 

In October 2019, Vetëvendosje, in coalition with the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), came to power for the first time after winning the national elections with 26% of the vote. In early 2020, just as the pandemic began, the U.S. and other international sponsors of Kosovo’s independence resurrected a deal involving a land swap to resolve outstanding issues between Kosovo and Serbia that had been previously unofficially supported by former High Representative of the EU, Federica Mogherini. The deal included demands that Kosovo remove tariffs against Serbian products. After Kurti rejected the suggestion, LDK called a vote of no confidence that eventually ousted the government. 

LDK’s vote of no confidence was engineered directly by the Trump administration, particularly by U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations Richard Grenell. A short two months after the vote of no confidence, the head of LDK’s Parliamentary Group, Arben Gashi, stated that Grenell had given a seven day ultimatum to LDK to oust the Kurti-led government. “We were given clear instructions of what needs to be done within seven days. And every consecutive day, the 6th, the 5th, we received a reminder,” Gashi told Kosovo’s Kanal 10. 

Despite the Trump administration’s interference and its clear dislike for Vetëvendosje, to the surprise of many, Kosovar voters went against the political preferences of the U.S. government in the following elections. On February 14, 2021, Kurti’s Vetëvendosje, in coalition with the LDK splinter party “Lista Guxo” headed by Kosovo’s current president Vjosa Osmani, doubled its vote share and won the elections with an unprecedented landslide of more than 50%.

Vetëvendosje came to power in spite of being disliked by the U.S. State Department, not by cozying up to them.

The results demonstrated that even though the overwhelming majority of Kosovar Albanians deem the Americans liberators and worship the Clintons and Albright, they are not oblivious to the U.S. State Department’s undemocratic interference. Vetëvendosje managed to come to power and double its electoral base in spite of being disliked by the U.S. State Department, not thanks to subserviently cozying up to them. 

Kurti is certainly not the first leader to attempt to bolster Kosovo’s sovereignty in the face of Serbia’s obstruction, though past attempts were sporadic and short-lived. For example, in 2011, tensions between Kosovo and Serbia mounted when Kosovo’s government tried to establish control of two border crossings in the northern part of the country at Jarinje and Brnjak. Amid armed tensions with local Serbs, Kosovar police officer Enver Zymberi was killed in action.

Unlike his predecessors who were susceptible to threats from international administrators due to allegations about their post-war corruption and criminal affairs, Kurti can’t be pressured in the same way. So far, there have not been any credible accusations of corruption connected to his leadership and commentators in Kosovo write that he has managed to create a myth of supreme moral authority. This has evidently put him in a comfortable position in terms of his stance towards international partners

In addition to the redefinition of relations with the U.S., it seems that Kurti is also renegotiating Kosovo’s relationship with the EU. While in opposition, he opposed any new agreements with Serbia, arguing instead for doing a proper inventory of prior agreements, many of which were implemented partially or not at all. During his election campaign, he said multiple times that the EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo was going to be his sixth or his seventh priority. What he was actually signalling was not so much his priorities but rather his approach to the dialogue. 

What we have seen since Kurti resumed office in February is that he, much like his predecessors, is travelling often to Brussels. During these visits, however, he has insisted on reciprocity measures with Serbia and has advanced Kosovo’s agency to speak and act as a legitimate sovereign state. He has also exposed the asymmetrical power relations between the two countries upheld in the EU’s formula for handling the dialogue. 

Though he’s no longer leading graffiti campaigns against UNMIK or EULEX, Kurti’s relationship with the EU and the U.S. now that he’s in power reflects Vetëvendosje’s roots as a leftist movement grounded in decolonial critique. Whether the movement is spray painting “EULEKSPERIMENT” across Prishtina’s public spaces or acting independently in the international diplomatic arena a decade later, Kurti has shown a commitment to exposing the ways that Western liberal interventionists experiment with new models of political and economic intervention in Kosovo.

License plates aren’t everything

With Vetëvendosje’s unprecedented victory in the elections of 2021 came high expectations for what they can accomplish. The horrendous legacy of the previous governments, marred by large-scale corruption and nepotism over 20 years only added to the high hopes and expectations.

Yet for many in Kosovo, the progress they anticipated has been slow to arrive. The education and the health sector remain plagued by structural problems and there is little hope for improvement. In fact, license plates, the dialogue with Serbia and Kurti’s relations with the U.S. have been at the forefront of public debate in Kosovo for months. This has taken attention away from the issues of air pollution, inflation, the much needed reforms in the health sector and the ever-looming energy crisis.

With EULEX, Kosovo hosts the largest EU Common Foreign and Security Policy mission in the world, yet Kosovars are unwelcome in the EU. It is the only country in Europe besides Russia, Turkey and Belarus to not enjoy visa-free travel to the EU, despite having fulfilled the conditions for visa liberalization in 2016. And despite a tangible U.S. presence in day-to-day politics in Kosovo, Kosovars do not enjoy visa-free travel there either. 

For over two decades, Western allies have lectured Kosovars about how to become a state along Western principles. Kosovars have been required to uncritically welcome Western liberal ideas of statebuilding. At the same time, for more than two decades, Kosovars have been shunned by the very same sponsors and remained distinct “Others.” 

In the wake of such humiliation, many Kosovars see a glimpse of dignity in Kurti’s principled stance towards the international community. But to what extent can this principled stance towards international actors compensate for the structural and day-to-day problems at home? 

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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